Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The challenge of challenges 5

After I realized how I had used challenges as a crutch for many years, I soured on them.  The dog would still salivate when the bell was rung, but I was able to restrain it from biting.  I knew that challenges would be the quilting equivalent of daily sudoku -- fun, intellectually stimulating, but in the end, irrelevant to the art I felt I should be making, my "real" art.

I made a rule: I would respond to a challenge or a theme show only if I could make work that was already on my to-do list.  In other words, it would have to be a natural extension of an existing body of work, and explore something that I hadn't already explored, or that I wanted to explore further.

The first occasion I had to live by my new rule came in 2008.  My small quilt group had a show that was going to be called "At the River's Edge" and I couldn't think of anything I'd made that would fit the theme.  My most recent work included this piece:

One day as I was whining to the group how I had no river quilts, no ideas, and precious little time before the show, somebody joked that if I was really desperate I could flip the quilt 90 degrees and call the blue a river.

Well!  Maybe not a joke after all!

I did flip the quilt and named it Low Water.  I recalled that the red-brown area of the quilt had been suggesting parched, cracked, dried-up dirt all along and it wasn't a stretch to think of the blue as water.

Crazed 6: Low Water, 34 x 45", 2008

That immediately prompted a companion piece, which I named Flood Stage.  Here the river is almost escaping its bounds, lapping enthusiastically against the bricks.  I knew exactly how I wanted to make this quilt, because I had already resolved that in the future I wanted to use different colors of similar value, and try using small print fabrics as my fine lines (to date, I had only used solids).

Crazed 7: Flood Stage, 36 x 57", 2008

I loved both quilts, and was pleased that the theme show made them happen.  And I felt so happy that I hadn't spent months making quilts that didn't fit into my current series.


  1. I don't often take up challenges but I do like them. What I usually use a challenge for is a way of connection. Since I don't belong to any fiber/quilt group - when I do a challenge its a way to join in for a just a little bit. Also - since I don't do a lot of them - its nice to see if it might lead to a whole new line of creative thinking. Now of course I'm just starting in on my journey of serial art work - so maybe I'll change my mind about challenges but for now I'll keep taking them every once in a while.

  2. I've made the same resolution. When I first began art quilting, challenges gave me a way to figure out where to start, but after feeling frustrated and stressed about the growing pile of unfinished challenge projects, I've lost the urge for the most part. And allowed myself to rename the pile "quilting practice." I'm much happier pursuing my own ideas now.

  3. I avoid theme quilts too, with the exception of an annual challenge issued by the president of our local contemporary quilt group. Recently I came across a multi-media call for entry for an exhibition in CA celebrating habitat along the Pacific Flyway, and was thrilled with the very unusual absence of a completion date for artwork entered. I trotted out photo images of three abstract glacier quilts completed in 2008-09 after a trip to Alaska, and two of the three were juried into the exhibition.

  4. These are both such beautiful quilts.
    I love them.

    And I agree with you 100 % about what you are saying about challenges. Use them as stimulus to your own real work - avoid them if they take you into another direction.